JASON: Basic Research at the Pentagon is “Broken”

Basic scientific research sponsored by the Department of Defense has suffered a precipitous decline in recent years, according to a newly disclosed 2009 report (pdf) from the JASON defense advisory panel.

“Basic research” refers to the investigation of fundamental phenomena, and contrasts with “applied research” that aims to meet a specific mission requirement or to solve a specified problem.

“Over the past decade, there has been an exodus of scientific and technical expertise from the U.S. government and, in particular, from the DoD [basic] research enterprise,” the JASONs said.

“Gone are many of the technically literate program officers who plied the streets of the scientific community to find those remarkable people who could help shape the future. Gone too are many of the scientists and engineers in the academic community [who were supported by DoD basic research contracts] and who contributed to revolutionary advances that changed the landscape of modern war fighting. And most importantly, lost is the opportunity to develop the next generation of scientific talent who would otherwise have been trained and capable of carrying the research enterprise forward.”

“Despite the importance of DoD Basic Research, we believe that important aspects of the DoD basic research programs are ‘broken’ to an extent that neither throwing more money at these problems nor simple changes in procedures and definitions will fix them,” the report said.

The JASONs nevertheless offer a series of recommendations concerning program organization and personnel recruitment to strengthen basic research. Among other things, they say that DoD should reject the “peer review” model for evaluating funding decisions, since that tends to reinforce the status quo, and should instead provide funding to exceptional individuals. They favorably cite Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez saying: “In my considered opinion the peer review system, in which proposals rather than proposers are reviewed, is the greatest disaster to be visited upon the scientific community this century….”

The JASON report was originally marked “for official use only.” When the Federation of American Scientists requested it last year under the Freedom of Information Act, most of the document was withheld as “deliberative.” But upon appeal, DoD agreed this month to release the entire report. To accompany the release, Alan R. Shaffer, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, issued a cover memorandum stating that the JASON report was “one perspective” among several and that it was not based on a comprehensive data set.

See “S & T for National Security,” JASON Summer Study, completed May 2009, released May 2010.